If your teen found a free copy of Looking for Alaska by John Green or White Cat by Holly Black at a coffee shop or ferry boat or the library, it might have been thanks to Sarah Woodard of Bremerton. The 19-year-old always joins in the annual Readergirlz "Rock the Drop" event, where participants surreptitiously distribute free books aimed at teen girls, a sort of Secret Santa on a mass scale. Woodard drops each book "in the hopes that someone will read it and love it" as much as she did.
"Rock the Drop" is perhaps the most visible manifestation of Readergirlz, a movement founded by four Seattle authors of young adult novels that has since spread nationwide. The group's elusive, but exciting, mission is to get books in the hands and hearts of teenage girls who aren't easy to reach. While their activities have taken different forms over the years, their overriding goal remains the same: "Read. Reflect. Reach Out."
Readergirz began in 2007 with authors Justina Chen Headley, Lorie Ann Grover, Dia Calhoun, and Janet Lee Carey. The initial spark came when Headley went on a tour for her debut book, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies), and saw how many teens in low-income areas didn't get to connect with books and authors. The four self-named "Readergirlz divas" wanted that to change, launching their project with no budget but lots of energy and big ideas. "We were really a social media network," Grover said.
Girls around the world stayed up late to participate in their initial specialty, online chats, with authors like Meg Cabot and a pre-hysteria-level Stephenie Meyer.
"You have no idea how crazy and wonderful and overwhelming it is to have all these cool people excited about ME. Me, of all people!" Twilight author Meyer wrote on the chat after answering page after page of Readergirlz questions. "I wish I could hug you all."
The "divas" and their growing volunteer corps interviewed authors and posted the videos on YouTube. They assembled music playlists to accompany every recommended book, and reader guides. Librarians and others in the community recommended great reads and "readalikes," and accomplished graphic artists designed attention-grabbing posters. They played around with different variations of "Rock the Drop," and set out to help girls in harder-to-reach areas, from reservations to jails.
The only constant throughout the years for the Readergirlz has been change. It's a challenge to remain hip and relevant, to stay cutting edge when the edges are changing so fast.
"The whole social networking (scene) is changing. We have to evolve at the same time," Grover said.
The Readergirlz presence has migrated from Myspace over to Facebook and blogging and Twitter, "just trying to stay a step ahead and make sure we're where the girls are," Grover said. "Some kind of app" is probably next.
Author chats aren't as unique as they were when Readergirlz was doing them in 2007, so these days there's more focus on the blog, which functions as a news center, telling readers what books are coming up, what Readergirlz initiatives are coming up, and how to participate. A dedicated group of participants helps a lot, as do honors like a National Book Foundation award for the group's "innovative means of creating and sustaining a lifelong love of reading." That award brought the girlz national attention as well as a welcome $2,500 prize to bolster their organization.
"Now there's this massive community, which is amazing … and now what we can do is mobilize that networked community," Grover said.
Woodard, the Bremerton teen who has been "Rocking the Drop" for several years, first heard about the group from Myspace and joined the "Street Team," which contributes book reviews to the site. The high school senior also blogs and reviews books on her own website, http://sarahbear9789.blogspot.com, but remains active in the Readergirlz world. From them, "I get to meet so many amazing people in the book world and I also get to share my love of books," she said.
The job's been a virtually full-time one for Grover and other writers. The other three founders are taking breaks to work on their own books, while other volunteers step in throughout the country.
It has been amazing to see girls who may not have a close network connecting through Readergirlz, Grover said. "The other really cool thing is that in the community, you get adult librarians or moms talking at the same level with teens, and each of them are able to hear each other in ways maybe they're not able to in their own homes. That's been fascinating to watch and see – and a great encouragement."
Librarian Jackie Parker (interactivereader.com, tweeting @interactiver about "Books, libraries, Seattle, and food. With irreverence"), is an early blogger and supporter of online initiatives. She's helped provide book recommendations and perspective for the group since before its launch.
Asked who would most benefit from the Readergirlz, Parker wrote that the group's intention is for teens to be inspired by literature and make the world a better place through the lessons they learn.
"In practice, it's become a community of book lovers, and a place for literary activism and outreach; sort of literary evangelism as a way to ‘decrease world suck,' as the VlogBrothers would put it," she wrote.
"I think that it can appeal to teens and those adults who can still identify with the search for self."